Deborah Orr: To raise standards in schools we must start educating parents

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The Independent Online

The previous local shrine has only just succumbed to natural wastage, its shrinking array of flowers, candles, photographs, poems, soft toys, and water guns finally petering away to nothing. The water guns marked the fact that 17-year-old Frederick Moody had enjoyed taking part in a giant, organised water fight in Hyde Park, not long before he was stabbed to death by a gang of youths, outside his home, and mine.

Now, only a couple of hundred yards away, another makeshift shrine has been constructed, this time for 16-year-old Oluwaseyi Ogunyemi, who was murdered on Monday evening in a gang fight near his home. He is the seventh teenager to have been murdered in London this year.

On Thursday, a 21-year-old was taken to hospital in Ealing with stab wounds. He was pronounced dead on arrival. But his attackers, and his "colleagues", were not chastened enough by his death to restrain themselves from continuing the fight in the grounds of the hospital.

Meanwhile, the trial of Ben Kinsella's alleged murderers continues. At the time that this 16-year-old was killed, outside a pub a year ago, there was much awareness of the fatal violence that adolescents and young men were increasingly embracing. Knife crime among teenagers was even described as "an epidemic". Already, however, this grotesque, ongoing, phenomenon has become part of the landscape, like the little shrines that it generates.

The saddest thing is that, in terms of facilities for young people, the local scenery has vastly improved in the past decade. Oluwaseyi was killed in a passageway leading to a nearby park, Larkhall, which was desolate a few years back but now has gleaming facilities for sport and play which are well used and well appreciated. A park-keeper has recently been employed to take care of the place. Oluwaseyi himself was a member of a vibrant and well-disciplined football club, run by a charismatic volunteer. He has little sympathy for the gang members that proliferate in that area despite his efforts and those of others. "Their minds are empty," he says.

Again, this is despite concerted efforts to fill the minds of these children at schools where staff are only too aware of the difficulties that some of the children face at home. This week's shake-up of the primary curriculum may go some way to helping here, and so will Sir Alasdair Macdonald's review of the teaching of PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), which recommends that the subject is made compulsory. But I still think that there needs to be a more nuanced, flexible and community-sensitive approach.

Macdonald himself is an object lesson in how much can be done in and from schools. The school he has run for many years, in Tower Hamlets, has had huge success in engaging pupils and, more importantly, parents with innovative programmes. Community need at his school is unusually great. Seventy-five per cent of its intake qualify for free school meals. Yet, over a decade and a half, his school has moved from managing to propel less than 20 per cent of its intake to five good GCSEs to nearly 80 per cent instead.

A lot of this success had been achieved simply by offering the children things that their parents don't, such as trips to museums, theatres and parks. Crucially, the school also supports parents, so that they can start doing this themselves, via the most basic and liberating provision, such as running adult courses in English.

I tend to think it is this focus on educating parents, as much as any structural change in the curriculum, that is the key to delivering social change through schools. Clearly, however, it is not necessarily desirable to evolve a state system that treats every pupil as if they are receiving little input at home. Apart from anything else, it's an expensive approach.

And the vast majority of parents don't actually need their children to be taught by the state that they should eat fruit and vegetables in a formal environment. This just repeats what they are constantly nagged about at home, and fills them with boredom. Schools in areas facing social deprivation do need to be far more "comprehensive" than schools that are attracting a fairly affluent intake, and recent government policy has recognised this. It is already reflected in funding policy, and in a swathe of other policies, but not enough.

The poorer the school cohort, the greater the need for dedicated social-work departments, for an emphasis on PSHE, for a wide, almost all-encompassing curriculum of out-of-school hours support, and the greater the need for individual attention for children who can benefit from it. Not every school needs to be a "community school". But all schools need to be freer to construct their schools according to the needs of the families they service, and even to select the pupils, not academically, but socially, according to the kind of facilities for support that they offer. There has been too much worry about "sin bin" schools, and too much dread of a drift towards a tiered system. There is nothing wrong with making creative provision for those in the most need, and there has been much wrong with an approach that strives instead too much to treat everyone the same.

The fat lady still sings

There's something heroic about Kirstie Alley, the one-time female lead in Cheers who more recently starred in her own programme, Fat Actress.

The latter was about trying to work in Hollywood when you have put on piles of weight, and was written by Alley from her own experience.

Yet Alley, like so many other women in the public eye, was unable to match her bravado about the weight with acceptance of it. She went on a diet, hit the treadmill, shed more or less the lot and signed up as the face and body of the American diet company Jenny Craig.

This week she was on Oprah, explaining how she had allowed her weight to get out of control again, and vowing to get herself back in a bikini in the near future. All the fat was back.

Alley is open and frank about her compulsive eating, and doesn't make excuses for herself. But it is a wretched condition. Alcoholics, it is understood, must never touch alcohol if they want to control their addiction. But there is not quite such a well-defined battle line for compulsive eaters.

JG Ballard the boy racer? Hardly, even if he did own a Capri

In a long piece this week suggesting that there had been too many long pieces marking the death of JG Ballard, The Daily Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu suggested that the writer had nursed a rather sordid "love affair with speed and violence" that didn't really deserve admiration.

Those obsessions are certainly apparent in Ballard's work, but as many others have pointed out, the man himself was gentle, wonderfully affable and hard to link with his fictional creations. As for his real-life relationship with cars, it was much like his real-life relationship with all other consumer objects. Ballard always drove a Ford because the nearest dealership to his home in Shepperton was a Ford dealership, just as he always shopped at Budgens for the same reason.

Some years back, Ballard developed a marked aversion to a horrid green Ford in the dealership's window, and occasionally remarked on how it was doomed to stay there for ever as no one liked it any more than he did.

It was still there ages later, when he needed to replace his own car, and he ended up buying the hated monster, in a transaction that seemed pleasing in its inevitability. For the same quotidian reason Ballard became the owner of a Capri at one point. His partner, Claire Walsh, says that in those days boy racers were always endeavouring to place themselves next to Ballard at traffic lights, terribly disappointed when they saw that the car was being driven by an innocuous middle-aged man who would give them no sport. If only they'd known they were up against the author of Crash.